Instead of trying to run it back with the reigning NFC champions, Hargrave headed west in early 2023, signing an eye-popping four-year, $81 million deal with the team his Eagles had just defeated to reach the Super Bowl. On paper, the signing was doubly beneficial for the 49ers: They’d bolstered their defensive interior with a wrecking ball of a defensive tackle, while also stealing him away from a direct competitor.
Hargrave proved them right by fitting in well with the 49ers, posting seven sacks and earning a Pro Bowl nod. But he wasn’t in attendance for the Pro Bowl, because just like last year, he had a Super Bowl to prepare for.
If anyone knows what it’s like to face these Chiefs with a Lombardi Trophy on the line, it’s Hargrave. He delivered a short explanation detailing why it’s so difficult to sack Patrick Mahomes on Tuesday, a moment in which one could envision Hargrave relaying the same information to his teammates.
“Pat sees the rush. It ain’t like he’s just staring at the rush, but he feels the rush,” Hargrave said. “Even when you’re winning your rush, he knows how to make somebody miss and get the ball out real quick. And it ain’t like he’s trying to run the ball, he’ll just make somebody miss to make a big play.
“We just all gotta play together and swarm. We’ve got to get back to playing our brand of football, because it’s going to take everybody. It ain’t no one person that can win this game. It’s going to take us all having a big game.”
As Hargrave still simmers thinking back on last season’s Super Bowl fall, he’s not the only one looking to avoid that familiar sting.
Armstead delivered a response eerily similar to Hargrave’s a day later, and underscores a growing theme with the 49ers, especially those who have fallen to the Chiefs in past Super Bowls: It’s time to ensure we don’t feel like that again.
“I want to win just as bad as I do for myself as I do for all my teammates,” Armstead said. “I want to share that other side of the coin, I guess, that winning experience and that happiness with everyone.”
Having been so close and fallen short is a feeling Hargrave doesn’t want again, and it’s resonated with teammates.
“A lot of guys, even from the ’19 team, there’s been a lot of guys that were here a couple of years ago,” linebacker Oren Burks said Wednesday. “But Hargrave specifically, he just wants it even more. Getting that close to winning it all and getting to play on the same stage again this year, I just know he’s gonna give it his all. For me, I’m like ‘I can’t let him down. I can’t let my brother down.'”
As they’ve said all week, effort – another word that has been a hot topic among 49ers defenders after some lapses in recent games – and execution will be the difference. Preparation, too, including avoiding distractions as much as possible.
That’s where a player like Hargrave comes in handy.
“I just told them to be mindful of the distractions,” Hargrave said. “Live in your own little world. Really, it’s all about football this week. Of course, I told them about all the media stuff we had to do, but I just told them, man, eat, sleep and think football the whole week.”
Since the 49ers last appeared in the Super Bowl, the United States has cleared a presidential election, and the world, a pandemic. They’ve had enough time between appearances to earn a standard undergraduate degree – which means they’ve had more than enough time to process the rarity of reaching the Super Bowl.
“Last time around, I wasn’t on the stage in the NFC Championship Game,” Warner said when asked to reflect on the differences between his first NFC title and this season’s triumph. “I was just a young pup. I had guys like Richard Sherman – I think George (Kittle) was still up there because he was the guy back then still – but those little moments, it’s like, ‘Oh man, we’re back. We’re going.’
“It’s the thing you’ve thought of all season long, you’ve worked toward, and you’re finally there. I know the feeling of making it. And I know it’s not enough just to make it.”
Urgency won’t be an issue Sunday. Neither will experience. And if all goes according to plan – again, the execution element – they just might have the greatest experience of their football lives.